Time to Pack Your Weekender
and Head For The Hills
written by LAUREN VASTINE | photos courtesy of LAUREN VASTINE; ASHLEY BOWEN; SCOTT TREADWAY/TREADSHOTS; SAM DEAN
Escaping to the foothills, I started my sojourn in the heart of Hendersonville: downtown Main Street.The zigzagged road is lined with local shops, restaurants, attractions and bears. Yes, bears. Eleven statues are scattered amongst the street blocks, and while I found many Hendersonville hotspots to be charming, such unexpected surprises behind every corner redrew tradition’s usual hard lines.
I made my own bear tracks down the noticeably spacious sidewalks, window-shopping as I went. During horse-and-buggy days, drivers wanted to be able to make a quick U-turn when needed, so the roads were made extra wide. Now, a buggy-less but vibrant scene unfolded around me.
Unique storefronts hinted at the personalities of each shop, with their doors propped open begging a peek inside at the treasure trove of trinkets my eyes would soon find. The sense of community was palpable as people of all ages spent their afternoon on Main Street. One suggestion, stop in to the recently opened Flat Rock Cider Works for one of their locally picked and pressed pints on tap — you won’t be disappointed.
Not far from Main Street is their famed Flat Rock Playhouse that sits, well, on a fl at rock. Expanding the length of the parking lot is a large piece of rock that gave the playhouse its name. It’s a simple backstory that has led to widespread success. Offering Broadway-style entertainment, Flat Rock Playhouse is the official state theatre of North Carolina. Priding themselves on quality, the actors, some having auditioned in New York, don their expertly made costumes and perch upon skillfully built props as they pull you into their performance. I was treated to a rendition of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” and all I have to say is that the standing ovation at the end was well deserved.
Outside the playhouse, imagination takes another turn, down hidden trails that wind through dense forests, over a white wooden bridge and up a steep slope to the Carl Sandburg home. The all-white house stands out like a ghost amongst the canopies of green and is one of Hendersonville’s historic gems. Known as the “poet of the people,” Sandburg was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and social activist. The peacefulness of the property and breathtaking mountain views were enough to inspire Sandburg to complete more than a third of his life’s work on the Hendersonville estate. Moving into the home in 1945 with his wife and daughters, the walls were, and still are, a writer’s paradise. With floor-to-ceiling bookcases in nearly every room and windows unobstructed by curtains to reveal rolling mountains, the effect is so hypnotic you may find yourself picking up a pen and writing into the early hours of the morning just like Sandburg.
While the estate includes approximately 30 acres, Sandburg’s wife claimed they had bought more than just that; they had bought “a million acres of sky.” When her husband passed in 1967, she turned the home over to the National Park Service so his legacy could live on. The home is currently under renovation and will hold a grand re-opening for the 50th anniversary in 2018.
BUSHELS OF VIEWS
Leaving the home where the walls whisper poetry, I couldn’t help but recall work of another favorite author who could turn a blank page into a looking glass for fantastical adventures.
Imagine walking into a small room with a single wardrobe. Now open the wardrobe doors, push aside the coats and see an entire world unfold before you. It’s not Narnia, but the orchards and vineyards of Hendersonville.
One morning, when the sun had been up long enough to cast a golden hue over the hills, I made my way to the apple orchards. Sky Top Orchard in Flat Rock welcomed me with the sweet aroma of their famous apple cider doughnuts baking beneath an open window.
Sitting on 100 acres, this U-Pick farm is one of the largest in the Southeast. With a farm-first mindset, the owners consider themselves a “back-to-earth” couple. Sky Top uses limited pesticides on their more than 35 varieties of apples that grow just behind their open-air market. They want their orchard to be a place where families come year after year, but Sky Top also offers a wide variety of products for guests to take home, including (but nowhere near limited to) pies, jams, juice and applesauce … and you can’t forget the doughnuts.
If the baked goods don’t catch your eye, the orchard will. What seems quaint at first glance actually opens out into the orchard fields and panoramic mountains, framed with strung lights hanging from the ceiling and a wall of wicker baskets for apple picking. With seemingly endless rolling hills and picturesque acreage, the views were better than fiction.
The next day, we added a little kick to our apples and bellied up to the bar at Bold Rock cidery in Mills River. This place knocked it out of the park from my first taste of their local hard cider blend, Carolina Apple, followed by their Carolina Draft, which was a close second. Both were a mixture of sweet and dry, and 100-percent refreshing. Co-founder and New Zealand native Brian Shanks described it as the “perfect drink for a warm Carolina day.” Being the brainchild behind Bold Rock, Shanks had no hesitation explaining his passion for cider, and how he had pondered the question, “How can I make a drink people will like?” Sourcing apples from the area, Bold Rock doesn’t use any artificial products. Grab a seat at the Tasting Bar that grants transparent views into their assembly warehouse where the cider is made and bottled.
Trading apples for grapes, Burntshirt Vineyards was my next stop. With its name stemming from local mountain lore, the vineyard is one of the best in the state. There’s an extensive list of awards on their website, including North Carolina’s Winery of the Year from the 2015 New York International Wine Competition – and it’s no surprise why. The property touts a main house for tastings, a winery, a cottage, an expansive event room and so much more. Their spacious outdoor patio features corn hole and live music with unobstructed views of the vineyards that span 19 acres. Inside, the cozy main house is overtaken by a wrap-around tasting bar, where visitors can sip on 14 different wines. Starting from dry reds and ending with sweet whites, my favorite was Harvest Gold, their ultimate dessert wine. Upon its first pour, the wine was described as “a consistency like olive oil, it’s so potent.” A quick swirl of my glass and sniff to my nose, my senses were overwhelmed with floral and peach aromas that followed with flavors of honey and melon. Definitely didn’t reach for the dump bucket that time. Harvest Gold is their sweetest wine because its grapes stay on the vine until mid-November. Having all that extra time in the sun makes it produce more sugar, resulting in pure decadence.
My time at the vineyard even treated me with a taste of home. I happened to run into a native Alpharetta couple that was passing through on a wine-tasting exploration. It was wonderful to share our stories over rich wine, further clarifying to me that the heart of Hendersonville is its people. Whether resident or traveler, it’s common ground for good brews and good memories.
I ended my sojourn 3,000 feet above the ground at Jump Off Rock, taking in serene views of the Blue Ridge and Pisgah mountain ranges. It was just before sunset and the clouds were low, weaving between the rolling pastures below. One could see for miles.
Sitting on an exposed rock, staring out, I reflected on my few days spent in Hendersonville. I came to understand that the hospitality here is as fine as a glass of wine, leaving you with an aroma that’s so evocative of a perfect mountain hideaway, it keeps you coming back through the seasons.